News framing of Yandex-presented Russian news in three countries

The study “Is all Russian news the same? Framing in Russian news media generated by the Yandex news algorithm for the United States, Estonia, and Russia.” by Heidi Erbsen and Siim Põldre from University of Tartu was a study on news framing comparing how Yandex news algorithm displayed Russian news in United States, Estonia, and Russia. 

Research on Russian media influence abroad has shown that it is not misinformation that is the threat, but the subtle biases and suggestive tones in the framing of those news. Thus, ‘myth-buster- or anti-fake news tactics are unlikely to counter it.

Previous studies, while being about news algorithms, have not looked at how the same algorithm, in this case the Russian-owned Yandex, operates across borders. This study aims at analyzing the differences in headlines across countries, and thus the operation of the algorithm.

Shanto Iyengar has looked previously on agenda-setting. According to Iyengar, agenda-setting is not a straightforward process on the ability of the news outlet to frame an issue. He further found two larger framing strategies: “thematic framing” and “episodic framing”.

In thematic framing, the issue is presented in news as being related to general trends or public policy, and ongoing in nature, and are more impersonal. In contrast, episodic framing embodies personal experience and particular instances. Thematic framing is related to societal responsibility, and episodic framing to individual responsibility. 

A total of 800 headlines were collected from a total of 162 outlets. There were roughly the same amount of headlines from Russia, United States and Estonia. They were systematically collected from 19 November 2018 to 23 March 2019 using separate browsers with set location preferences. 

The first finding was that in many cases, the Yandex headline different vastly from the headline in the actual text after clicking the link. This was particularly the case with Russian headlines, as in ⅘ of them there was a ‘clickbait’ headline that was different from the actual one. In US, this was roughly ⅗ , while in Estonia it was only ⅕.

When it comes to issues, Russian headlines focused on Ukraine and oil. Both Russia and United States also had plenty of international relations. Social welfare and local elections took priority in Estonia. United States appeared to be somewhat ‘in between’ Russia and Estonia in having local elections and public safety like Estonia. Estonia was unique in the focus of social welfare and Russia in Ukraine (note: the headlines were collected before the full-scale war that started in 2022).

Framing strategies differed across the countries. It is expected that thematic framing and episodic framing occurs at roughly same ratio, that is 50-50. In Russia, episodic framing was slightly less common at 42.2%, with 57.8% thematic. In US, thematic strategies were even more prevalent at 63.6%–36.4%. Estonia, on the other hand, had more episodic framing, 56.6%–43.4%.

Looking at how different issues were framed, in all countries interest stories were overwhelmingly framed using the episodic lens (87.5–91%), as were stories of public safety (69–86%). International relations stories were framed more thematically, but in Estonia, even this was close to 50-50.

The authors ponder on the meaning of the findings in light of Iyengar’s suggestion that episodic framing suggests an individual or unique issue, and thematic social and normalized issue. They suggest that the Estonian tendence to use the episodic lens is used as a tool to depoliticize or isolate issues as single occurrences.

In contrast, Ukraine and International relations were particularly presented using the thematic lens in US and Russia, reflecting the fact that these countries are major World powers and the issues are presented as systemic or as parts of a larger discourse. 

The findings also open the door for more questions and subsequent research, as there were also cases where similar issues used a different frame in different countries. What is the reason for this, what is there about the issues that prompts a different frame? 

In conclusion, the authors state that despite the common framing across issues, the particularities in episodic and thematic framing show that the Russian information space remains distinct across the borders.  

The article “Is all Russian news the same? Framing in Russian news media generated by the Yandex news algorithm for the United States, Estonia, and Russia.” by Heidi Erbsen and Siim Põldre is in Journalism. (free abstract).

Picture: Untitled by Artem Beliaikin @belart84

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